Kids squealed with delight upon arriving at the brand-new inclusive playground designed for those with virtually any type of disability at the Wesley Chapel District Park. There were swings and tubes and things to sit and spin on, a soft, cushioned floor to walk on and roll over and lots of bright colors.
It was all theirs.
The glee in their faces was contagious, and it was exactly the moment Pasco County Board of County Commissioners chair Mike Moore had envisioned when he first pitched the idea to the county’s Parks and Recreation department.
The kids weren’t the only ones overwhelmed.
“I’ll be honest with you, when the kids first came out here, I was watching and I had to walk away because it was a little overwhelming,” Comm. Moore said. “I had a couple of tears in my eyes, I really did. This is a miracle.”
On December 4, a large gathering of overjoyed kids, dedicated caregivers and teachers, Pasco County government dignitaries and generous donors from the Wesley Chapel Rotary Club, the Lennar Foundation and AdventHealth Wesley Chapel took a few snips at the ribbon cutting, officially opening Pasco’s first-ever inclusive playground.
It was a perfectly sunny day, with a slight chill in the air. But, most everyone there had their hearts warmed by the excitement of the kids, most of whom arrived on a bus from the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) programs from John Long Middle School and Wiregrass Ranch Elementary.
“I’m having a ball,” shouted Eric Piburn, a terminally ill 13-year-old in glasses, gloves, a knit cap and a face mask. Piburn, who needs a heart and double lung transplant, excitedly described his experience as he swung back and forth from a disc swing (that looked like an over-sized basket), the tube from his oxygen tank swaying along with him.
“I’ve loved swings since I was little,” he exclaimed. “I never ever ever ever ever ever want to leave. Ever.”
Another Long student walked around giving everyone a hug. Others wide-eyed but trepidatiously wandered from ride to ride, looking to find something they enjoyed.
“This is really cool,” said Deborah Collin, assistant principal in charge of ESE services at Long. “I keep saying to myself, where can we get some of this stuff?”
For every 1,000 children in Pasco County, there are 85 who have some type of special needs. Countywide, the Pasco County School District says there are about 16,000 children with special needs. Collin says there are 55 children in the ESE program at her school, spread over three different classifications of disability, with five teachers and eight instructional aides.
While they have adaptive physical education for the students, it is confined to a room.
“It’s still not enough movement or variety,” she said.
Which is why the playground is such a gamechanger for children with disabilities.
“This is huge,” said Barbara Hayes, a physical therapist with Pasco County Schools for 22 years. “There aren’t a lot of areas for those children to access. You can see the smiles on their faces. This gives them an opportunity to play with children more at their developmental level. This is a wonderful thing and very well done.”
Collin said one of her students, seventh grader Zakyla McKenzie, spends a lot of time playing with a plastic bottle. It fulfills some of her sensory needs, with its texture and the sound it makes when squeezed. But, it’s been the only exercise she usually gets each day.
At the inclusive playground, however, Zakyla was able to find something she liked more.
“She was having such a good time on the swing, she did not want to get off,” said Nellie Reilly, a behavioral specialist at Long who seemed as overjoyed as many of the students.
While many area parks may be compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, few truly meet the standards of what proponents consider to be inclusivity. To do so requires wider pathways and easier-to-navigate surfaces, activity panels that are at ground height, larger swings with more back support and sensory elements that include touch and music.
There are multiple swing sets on the playground, an inclusive spinner that allows kids in wheelchairs to have a merry-go-round experience with their friends, a tube to crawl through — “I like to pretend I’m a cat!” said Eric — and four springy chairs. The surface throughout the playground is made of rubber and, combined with the spread-out rides, allows easy access for wheelchair-bound kids to move around and interact with others.
In the spring, a butterfly garden, which will be tended to by the Rotary Club of Wesley Chapel, should be in full bloom.
“I didn’t see anybody that didn’t find something that worked for them,” Collin said.
The inclusive park is the first of its kind in Pasco County and one that Moore said he hopes to replicate in other places. It was not, however, your typical project for the county — it was introduced, funded, approved, designed and built in less than five months, which is light speed by traditional governmental standards.
As a volunteer coach at the District Park for a variety of sports, Moore had for many years seen kids who could run fast, jump high and were able to revel in what the park had to offer.
However, he also had seen the kids who couldn’t, those relegated to the sidelines because of a disability. The park wasn’t for everyone, he realized, and he said the thought bothered him and prompted him to try and change that situation.
After a few months of research, Moore introduced the idea to Keith Wiley, Pasco’s director of Parks and Recreation, earlier this year. Wiley had been thinking similarly — he already had been planning some special needs camps for the county.
To fund the project, since it wasn’t in the county’s budget, Moore turned to the 53-member Rotary Club of Wesley Chapel — of which he is an honorary member — which just happened to be looking for a big project, and the club agreed to donate $50,000 for the playground.
Chris Casella, the Rotary Club’s current president, told the ribbon-cutting ceremony crowd of roughly 100 that he was motivated by his own experiences as a kid, and the times spent at the park with friends and family.
“Today,” he said, “this can be a reality for so many families from this area that are going to be able to bring children to this park and have memories that will last a lifetime.”
The Lennar Foundation, the homebuilder’s charitable arm, donated another $50,000, and Advent Health Wesley Chapel chipped in another $25,000.
In August, the county commission voted 5-0 to approve roughly $215,000 in public funding to cover the rest of the project. Ground was broken in September. The ribbon was cut in December.
It was money well spent. As the kids slowly filed back to their school bus, and the adults headed back to work, Eric Piburn continued to rock back and forth on the disc swing, still planning to never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever leave.